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The Three Lives of Tefere Gebre
It’s the only logical way to explain how a teenage Ethiopian refugee became O.C.’s most effective labor leader and a top executive with the national AFL-CIO. But will he have a fourth life in politics?
Roughly a thousand well-heeled members of the local Democratic Party crowd into the Magic Kingdom Ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel—fitting for a group whose dream of becoming Orange County’s dominant political party for so long seemed the stuff of fantasy. But at tonight’s annual Harry S. Truman Dinner, there’s back-slapping and glad-handing aplenty, especially when a wiry man with a disarming smile winds through the crowd, offering familiar faces exuberant greetings in a lilting accent: “Brother!” “Sister!” “Councilman!” “Senator!”
Tefere Gebre [pronounced Teh-FAHR-ay Geh-brey] is here to receive the local organization’s Social Justice Award, and when party stalwart Jeff LeTourneau introduces to the crowd 90 minutes later, it’s clear that 45-year-old Gebre’s personal story has all the drama of good fiction: his escape as a teenager from war-torn Ethiopia, relocation and assimilation into American culture, an improbable rise through the labor movement ranks to become executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, and his recent election to the post of executive vice president of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., the third-highest position in the country’s largest labor federation. Gebre’s achievements, LeTourneau continues, include a dramatic increase in Democratic Party registration—thanks to Gebre’s launching an unprecedented year-round voter registration drive—and, bucking a national trend, an expansion of the county’s union rolls by drawing in previously marginalized groups, including the Vietnamese, Latino, and gay communities.
If you didn’t know Gebre had left Orange County—or more likely that he was ever here to begin with—it’s probably because unions have been in decline in the U.S. since the 1950s, precipitously since President Ronald Reagan abruptly fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. A mention of labor unions these days is likely to induce an eye-roll accompanied by a litany of problems some feel they cause: waste, corruption, no-show jobs, inflated salaries, and out-of-control fringe benefits.
But don’t tell that to Gebre. A man who spontaneously bangs on the dashboard of his rented Chevy Malibu to exclaim, “I like these cars. A good American car. Made by our members,” he sees himself continuing the hard-fought movement that gained U.S. workers the 40-hour work week, minimum-wage laws, paid vacations, pensions, and simple human dignity. Case in point: One of his first O.C. campaigns involved organizing 400 private-sector trash sorters who spent eight-hour shifts rummaging through garbage, searching for recyclables. Unionizing helped the workers get simple-but-vital things, including replacements for ripped gloves, unlimited drinking water, and water sprinklers on hot days. Most significantly, according to Gebre, was the abolishment of the “bathroom board” on which, at the beginning of each shift, workers were required to schedule their breaks. “If I die tomorrow,” he says, “at least I had something to do with getting that bathroom board taken away.”
If he did die tomorrow, though, he’d still be ahead of the game. Because, as he attests: “You know, I’m literally living my third life right now. There is no reason I should be alive.”
Gebre was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, into a fairly prosperous family. His father was a retired judge who was 73 at the time of his birth, and his mother’s family had political connections to Emperor Haile Selassi. But in 1974, when Gebre was just 6, a military coup deposed Selassi, resulting in a civil war and reign of terror in which tens of thousands of students, intellectuals, and dissidents were tortured and murdered.
“Sometimes the military would just declare a Red Terror Day,” he recalls, in which soldiers would stop a city bus, pull off a few people—“You, you, and you”—and shoot them on the spot. Other killings were just as indiscriminate. One of Gebre’s seventh-grade classmates was hanged on suspicion of passing out antigovernment leaflets. Crowds that flocked to the markets on Saturdays were met by corpses the soldiers left as a message. “After a while, you get used to it,” he says, offering a wan smile.
On Sundays, walking to church with his father, “Every block we’d see kids we knew murdered, shot, hanged.” After sundown, soldiers hurled the dead onto trucks and hauled them away, to graves unknown. Travel was restricted, with trips of more than 15 miles outside one’s district requiring a visa or pass. His mother already had migrated to Sudan to join a guerrilla resistance group (to provide Gebre plausible deniability, she told him she was going to visit her father) and he had a brother in Texas, who, unbeknown to him, had been killed in a traffic accident. So 14-year-old Gebre resolved to “escape to freedom”—the United States.
Together with three friends and his nephew, the young men hired an armed peasant to lead them through the desert to Sudan, a 2½-week journey. But halfway through the trip, their guide, with accomplices, robbed the group, leaving them not only penniless, but directionless.
“There was no smoke from buildings, or anything. We couldn’t tell north, east, south, or west,” Gebre says. The group survived by eating “wild stuff” and walked at night, when it was cooler. Three months later, they were still wandering. “Sometimes you’d find yourself where you were a week ago,” he says. But staying still in the desert meant dying, so they marched on.
They saw very few people—a blessing, he says now. “The worst nightmare was encountering people and not knowing who they were. If they turned us over to the government, they would have made a huge example and hanged us.”
Ultimately some cattle herders aided them, and on the 93rd day of their odyssey, they reached the Sudanese border. Gebre, who began the trip weighing about 100 pounds, arrived weighing a scant 67.
Sudan, however, had stopped admitting refugees, so the band slipped in by crossing a river. Unable to swim, Gebre latched onto a compatriot’s bag.
“I vividly remember that night,” he says. He’d crawled under a tree to sleep, and later discovered he was lying in quicksand. “It’s the only time I prayed.”
That, he says, is when his first life should have ended. The rescuers who tugged him free made clear that another hurdle lay just ahead, at a military camp where officers certainly would helicopter them back to Ethiopia if not sufficiently incentivized.
The quintet worked on a farm for a couple of weeks to make “bribe money,” during which time Gebre suffered a serious scorpion bite and again thought he might die. Then one day the farm owner, who had taken a shine to him, unexpectedly offered to drive them to a large refugee camp, thereby circumventing the military officials.
Gebre stayed there for five months, until the International Rescue Committee (founded at the request of Albert Einstein) sponsored him to come to the U.S. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, he had “fattened up” to 90-plus pounds. (Still thin, the 5-foot-10 Gebre jokes, “Now I am a big guy.”)
His four compatriots eventually were scattered to the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Gebre’s sponsors placed him with other refugees in an apartment in Pico-Union, a neighborhood just west of downtown L.A., and helped secure him a green card, a Social Security card, and social services. He also began attending nearby Belmont High School.
As a boy in Ethiopia, Gebre often played soccer from morning until night. For a ball, “sometimes we’d pile socks on top of socks and sew them up.” So when an assistant coach at Belmont High informed him that colleges give scholarships to gifted athletes, he started playing as many sports as he could. “I figured I’d get good at one of them,” he says with a laugh.
Long-distance track was the ticket. Offered 42 scholarships, the 5,000-meter specialist chose Cal Poly Pomona. But first he had to survive high school. Gebre took a late-night job at an Inglewood liquor store, where he was paid under the table because he was underage. Twice he was robbed—at knifepoint and gunpoint—while waiting for a bus home. “Either of those times I could’ve been killed,” he says.
He also worked at UPS, loading big-rig trucks. One night, a new world opened up when a co-worker handed him some union material. It’s not hard to imagine how an organized group working toward everyone’s mutual benefit would appeal to someone such as Gebre, who grew up amid chaos in hostile environs, and life or death hinged on the kindness or enmity of strangers.
“He told me that I’d get health care and vacation and other benefits by filling it out. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ I thought ‘Hmm. Everyone should have that.’ ”
Gebre told that story to members of the Future Leaders Club, at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana, during his recent return to Orange County. Before receiving his award that evening, Gebre had scheduled a couple more stops. This one wasn’t on his itinerary, but when he learned that Julio Perez, his chaperone and interim replacement at the Orange County Labor Federation, was scheduled to speak to the teens, he insisted on joining him. For Gebre, it was an opportunity to “pay it forward” and plant a seed in the next generation regarding the necessity of unions, just as a man with a piece of paper planted it in him.
He left the teens with a message: “You should never, ever give up. The only thing you’ll regret the rest of your life is giving up. If the door is closed, there’s got to be some window open you can get through.”
After college, using a patchwork of student loans and grants, Gebre attended graduate school at USC, where he majored in international business. His career goal was to sell copiers. “I was obsessed with Xerox as a company.” But an internship with the company quickly changed his mind. “I realized, ‘This is really boring.’ ”
During that period he also immersed himself in a new phase of his complicated journey—electoral politics—and twice was elected president of the California Young Democrats. Shortly after that, he served for 2½ years as a legislative aide to Willie Brown, then speaker of the California Assembly.
After a workshop he conducted at a union conference in Sacramento during this period, a woman approached, asking questions pertaining to her job as an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Fittingly, something sparked. Jennifer Badgley and Gebre lived together for years, and have been married for seven. She most recently served as director of special projects and labor affairs for San Diego’s interim mayor.
Gebre worked his way up to become Southern California political director of the California Labor Federation, the local arm of the AFL-CIO with 2.2 million members. In 2006, the labor federation conducted a survey, concluding that all the counties in Southern California—and Orange County, in particular—needed some TLC. They “loaned” Gebre to the federation’s O.C. branch. The branch never returned him.
In his current AFL-CIO post, to which he was elected in September, Gebre crisscrosses the country, one day in Texas, the next in Alabama (where, he jokes, he’ll be met at the airport by seven people—“the entire labor movement”) regularly invoking Orange County as a Sisyphean if-we-can-build-a strong-labor-movement-there-we-can-build-it-anywhere throw down. It’s barely an exaggeration.
When he landed in Orange County, he sensed a severe morale problem among union leaders accustomed to ineffectualness and “living our own predictions.” The biggest resistance he encountered to initiating reforms came from Democratic leaders “because they were comfortable with the way things were, [but] we started demanding results.” Every election season, he says, the party took labor’s time and money, but also took its votes for granted. Once in office, he says, Democrats too often didn’t stand up for workers. “We were just an ATM for them.”
But he was determined. Julio Perez recalls Gebre standing outside the trash sorters’ workplace at 6 a.m., trying to organize them. Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, remembers him in the back of a pickup truck, telling 100 people, “We’re going to have to fight for every crumb. No one’s going to give us anything.” David Keicher, an AFL-CIO official who has known Gebre almost two decades, praises the labor leader’s ability to recruit volunteers, and to hold them accountable for producing results.
The branch soon expanded its staff and infrastructure, instituted year-round voter registration drives, and dramatically increased union membership. In 2008, Gebre was appointed the Orange County Labor Federation’s executive director. His outreach efforts that first year increased the federation’s membership by 41 percent, from 37,000 to 52,000. Union representative Sally Ramirez says that before he arrived, “working families didn’t feel like they were being heard” in the traditionally conservative county. “Union locals were all doing their own thing.” Under the umbrella of the federation, “Tefere brought everyone—postal workers, ironworkers, public servants—together, over pocketbook issues such as hours, wages, working conditions. It was quite a feat.”
Tired of repeatedly endorsing candidates who reneged on their promises after Election Day, Gebre started the Candidate Academy, requiring any aspirant, or incumbent seeking labor’s endorsement to take a five-hour class on the labor movement, and labor’s positions. “You can’t hold people accountable for something you didn’t teach them,” he says. “After elections they’d say ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was your issue.’ Well, then we’re going to take that excuse away from you.”
At the end of the class, the candidates get a “graduation” certificate, and they must bring it with them when they seek a union’s endorsement.
In conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union and cleric organizations, Gebre also held citizenship classes in union halls, aimed at O.C.’s estimated 240,000 green-card holders. Those periodic sessions also served as “one-stop shops” offering legal counsel, credit union loans, English classes, and more. Outreach efforts to the county’s large but previously marginalized Vietnamese community brought them into the fold. Gebre appeared frequently on Vietnamese TV shows and sent voter registration canvassers to engage them. “We didn’t talk politics. We discussed issues like houses foreclosing, social services, education … .” Noting that it would be illegal to register voters solely for one party, he adds, “We didn’t ask people what party they were with, but we did choose which neighborhoods to canvass.”
Gebre claims efforts such as these between 2007 and ’13 significantly helped narrow the county’s voter registration gap between Republicans and Democrats.
LeTourneau, the current county Democratic Party chairman who introduced Gebre at the awards dinner, says Gebre’s vision “was so much more than just win contracts and increase membership. He built a broad social justice movement, building coalitions with reproductive rights groups, gay rights groups. He knew the only way to win was to bring everybody under one umbrella.”
Not all Democratic leaders are pleased with Gebre’s spending time and resources on nonunion workers, or his inclusion of social issues that risk alienating blue-collar members, many of whom aren’t socially liberal. What they consider to be Gebre’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude also puts them off.
Two years ago Julio Perez lost a close, bitter race in the 69th Assembly District to Tom Daly, largely due to the efforts of Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who, according to both Gebre and Perez, paved the way for Daly’s victory by pushing Latino straw men into the race to divide the bloc’s vote. At Perez’s election night party, Gebre denounced Solorio from the podium as a “corporate whore,” and since has declared him “dead to me” despite the assemblyman’s 89 percent career pro-labor rating from the California Labor Federation. Frank Barbaro, then-Orange County Democratic Party Chairman and a Daly supporter, was later quoted professing his “deeply felt hatred” toward Gebre.
“He was not a team player. We couldn’t trust him. He had a mind of his own, and his tenure led to a significant deterioration in relations between labor and the Democratic Party,” Barbaro says.
Gebre’s response is that “inclusiveness” is part strategic, part moral. The same forces trying to destroy unions, he says, also oppose gay and immigrant rights, and environmental protections. “Somehow we have to get the people who are being attacked to fight back.”
The moral argument is more straightforward. Union organizing is about social justice, Gebre says. “You cannot just walk away when you see someone being discriminated against because of who or what they are.”
Gebre’s rigid idealism isn’t just talk. Even as he drove into the Disneyland Hotel parking lot that award night, he bristled at reports that the dinner was sponsored by Disney. “That’s a problem for me. You can’t have two bosses, management and labor. I clearly understand who I work for. I don’t work for any Democrat, including the president. I work for working people.”
In fact, Gebre is most proud of his community organizing work, rather than his political roles. “I don’t care if you have a union card or not. I want you to believe that the union movement speaks for you.”
In accepting the award, Gebre made a similar point, exhorting Democrats to stand up for workers’ principles: “When our bridges are falling apart, we shouldn’t be negotiating about a reduction in taxes. We should be raising revenues and fixing our infrastructure, and fighting for any worker who wants a job.
“The country I dreamed about, and almost lost my life coming to, is fading away. That’s what burns me up, that’s what I want to give my life for. I hope you join me.”
His call-to-arms got a rousing reception. Afterward, Gebre emphatically shook his head and waved off a question about whether he has political aspirations. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to politics,” he said.
“I’m the only one who’s left,” Julio Perez chimed in.
Gebre laughed. “That’s because you were lucky. You didn’t win.”
Photographs by Kyle Monk
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.